Starting at the beginning: children are born with a biology that suits them to grow up in human society. They have biological expectations for certain levels of nutrition and for certain kinds of treatment, withholding either results in weakness, illness, even death; we even have laws about neglect and abuse. But children also, as they grow past the most immediate vulnerabilities, absolutely require that the society inform them in some systematic manner about the rules and the skills needed for life with their fellows; children are also ready for this biologically with inquisitive brains and fidgety hands. It is axiomatic: our young become what we train them to be. They do not become what we wish we could train them to be; they can only become what we actually make possible for them to be.
Therefore, children are completely dependent on the quality and depth of the adults that raise and teach them about what life is and how it is to be lived. If the adults are screwing things up, then there is little chance that they will be able to avoid passing along those same habits to the next generation.
But human communities are complex and almost all of them range from assholes to saints, even as one or the other group may have preeminence for a time. And happily the tendency, though especially weak in large materialistic societies, has been for the saintly to use the special powers of the assholes for the benefit of the community. It is easy to think of examples where this is not or has not been the case, but in general those who genuinely get along with others well can wield more influence than a deceptive slime-ball. Though, given the realities of societies, a slime-ball on your side is periodically valuable.
It is possible to select, if not the parents of children, then those who will teach them the more specialized rules and skills of a society. And if the children are turning out badly, we had best look to what the society as a whole is teaching them. Schools are only part of the educational experience.
The force of the society as a whole cannot be overcome by an educational system that must, to do its job, defeat ubiquitous destructive influences. This, I believe, is the situation that we face today. However, the difficulty doesn’t relieve the obligation to make the effort.
With a schizophrenic twist, individual parents care about their kids, but the society does not. People want a safe world, but the money is in weapons and war, criminality and prisons. Knowledge and learning are recognized as essential for life as we know it to function, but we distrust those people who have and use that learning rather than acquire and use it ourselves.
So now let’s do school! What is immediately clear when trying to get a comprehensive image of public education is that it doesn’t have an overall focus. Curriculum planning and national standards actually make this even worse since schools fall back on “teaching” rather than attempting to see their function in the grand scheme. The present solution is a teacher with minimal understanding of their subject (one hopes) given a set of specific topics chosen from the subject area, broken down into what is, basically, a fact set and told that their students should pass a test on the material at the end of the term. The teacher is then required to submit, usually every week, a lesson plan for how he or she will deliver the appropriate content for the standard being taught. After all of this, if the kids don’t get it, then there must be something wrong with them – there has to be something wrong with somebody!
And of course, they are not ‘getting it.’ Basic science and math, grade level reading skills, history, political science (civics), you name it and far too many children are uninformed; unprepared to take on the responsibilities of taking care of themselves or others in the present world.
While I have a number of thoughts about what might be done, I want to focus on one issue right now: getting good teachers into public schools. The wealthy have no confusion on this issue. An established private school of good reputation will have a core of superior intellects that can teach. These teachers will be well paid, they will be respected and given the autonomy to create excitement for both their students and themselves, and they will face the expectation, as they should, that their students will leave their tutelage with a superior understanding of the subject and of themselves in relation to it.
Public education is not even supposed to question the quality of its teachers. Teachers have a process by which they are said to gain greater skills. They are reviewed and advanced in a generally pro forma way. Many become the official designation “Highly Qualified.” The unqualified, intellectually weak, the emotionally infirm are supposed to be selected out.
If it worked, this would be well and good, but it would still miss the essential point of attracting the best and the brightest, making teaching have the qualities that would compete successful with other intellectually stimulating professions.
Our essential question is what would be required to invite the good teacher to teach in our schools and to stay for a time. We need to answer this question; what are the qualities of a job that would attract a talented, inspired, committed person? That is our question because it only makes sense that the teaching profession should be competing with other important professions for the best people. It is not reasonable to expect that more than a small percentage of positions can be filled with high quality people based primarily on their good will and understanding of the need, yet that hope has been behind much teacher recruiting and hiring with surprising success. I have known a number of fine teachers who were in schools because they appreciated the importance of educating the young of our species.
Good teachers are not made by special programs, but are maintained by a supportive management and work environment. Good teachers start out good. Research has shown that teachers improve by various measures of classroom performance for the first 3 or so years, but after that tend to strike a level at which they stay. If this level is high performing, then good, if not there should be a systemic response. The goal should be to invite the best people into teaching and then to make their stay as productive as possible.
Many new teachers leave in the first 3 to 5 years. We could assume that it is the unsuccessful teacher who leaves, that they are selected out, leaving primarily the best teachers to continue on. This would be a mistake. The consensus is that it is often the best teachers and that they leave due to poor working conditions, low pay, lack of respectful relations with management and a condition I will try to write more cogently about in the future that I will call, for the moment, school pissyness – it is an infestation sort of like bedbugs.
What do mature, responsible self-starting people want in their work place? While an above average level of compensation is important other qualities are more important. Sufficient autonomy to express creativity and special interests, high quality colleagues, competent and approachable management, open and honest environment, adequate support for the required work, high expectations that are possible to meet.
As I said, public schools often don’t offer this sort of work environment. Much of the problem stems from teacher habits and school culture and can only be improved by inviting more aggressive and competent teachers into the work place. To that end I have a special proposal:
The selection of teachers is too important to be left up to principals or others as a part-time job. A team of people who have a clear idea of the qualities of good teachers, a group that cannot be snowed, charmed or conned would hire all the teachers for a district. Small districts could borrow the team from larger districts and very large districts could have more than one team if needed. The team could have other secondary duties involving teacher reviews and evaluation, but their primary responsibility would be to hone their selection skills. Academic area specialists would be brought in as needed as would the administrators, teachers and parents from the schools involved, but would have only advisory roles.
Phase in: present teachers would stay in place on present salary schedules. They would have 2 years to apply for the job they are in through the new hiring system. New teachers would apply through the new system for jobs with higher salaries; a teaching degree would not be an automatic ticket to the front of a classroom. To the extent possible working conditions would be improved to attract and keep better applicants, this would vary with districts. It would be expected that the new hires would demand better conditions since they would be able to leave for other jobs but would rather remake their present one. In the existing situation the aggressive self-starter just leaves even though they may find working with our human young a delightful experience, the other negatives dominate. Increasing the quality of teachers with the new hires and with better starting salaries there would be added incentive to stay and work on the problems.
The districts would be encouraged to take a small percentage of new hires from unconventional sources like the business community and those with other professional histories. Opportunity might be made for people from the crafts, farming, trades, etc. Since a competent core hiring team would be making the selections, people with atypical backgrounds could be considered as potential teachers with some certainty that they would possess the qualities of a good teacher without always the necessity of the training that is used to substitute for a real test of that criterion.
The goal would be to increase the competence, purposeful aggressiveness, commitment, range of experience and good teacher qualities of the teaching staff; and increase the respect that teachers would deservedly receive for being part of a more rigorously selected group. As the teachers became stronger they would demand better management. Such a combination would not be lost on the students who couldn’t help but feel more valued. Good teachers would demand, as a matter of course, that the students produce more in line with their potential.
I will not enumerate the obstacles in the way of this or other proposals, they are generally obvious and powerful, but this could be done in some administrative units, perhaps whole states. If done well, a difference might be made.